Proponents of privatizing more of child welfare services said Tuesday it would increase accountability and transparency.
DHS officials said the agency is moving in the right direction in response to legislation passed last year.
Rep. Ron Peters, R-Tulsa, said Oklahoma needs to consider carefully any changes to its system.
"We need to be cautious about this," said Peters, chairman of a House budget subcommittee on human services who held a legislative study on the issue.
Privatizing the children and family services division of the Department of Human Services would be more expensive, he said.
State funding for the division, which is about $117 million this fiscal year, would have to double, based on figures from Kansas and Florida, which privatized child welfare services.
Thirteen states have privatized some portion of their case management services.
Debra Smith, director of the DHS Children and Family Services Division, estimated about 25 percent of some foster care services is contracted with private vendors.
About 30 DHS workers wore stickers against privatizing all child welfare management services. DHS has about 1,500 employees, including nearly 1,000 child welfare workers, working on child welfare, Smith said.
"We're getting the best outcomes that we can with the money that we have."
If privatization were to occur, DHS would still need to keep many of its employees, she said, to monitor contracts with private vendors and managing the programs. A major risk is that some private contractors providing various child welfare services in other states have folded, she said.
The Very Rev. Edward Fellhauer, president of St. Francis Community Services in Salina, Kan., which contracts with DHS to provide therapeutic foster care at offices in Stillwater and in Tulsa, said agencies that provide child welfare services in Kansas are reviewed monthly on about 25 issues.
"These are the criteria under which we're judged, and they're measurable," he said. "You have to have a system that can give you information data measurability — are you getting better or are you getting worse?
Marq Youngblood, chief operating officer for DHS, said privatization would not save money. It is a complicated and massive challenge, and that just because it may work in one state does not mean it would be successful in Oklahoma.
Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, said he plans to again file legislation next session that would form a task force to look into the child welfare services.
Peters said he is heartened that DHS has made improvements in child welfare services since his legislation, House Bill 1734, passed last year. DHS has continued to increase worker retention, brought down its daily shelter population, reduced the number of children in out-of-home care, and achieved a record level of adoptions, he said.
The legislation came from suggestions in a $420,000 audit of DHS. Peters said he would like legislators to consider other suggestions in the audit.
"We seem to be getting the same results with less money," he said.
Stephanie Stone, a DHS child welfare worker from Oklahoma City, told the panel that HB 1734 should be given time.
"We're seeing a lot of progress," she said. "To pull the plug now and go to privatization, I think, would spell disaster for our children and our families."
Read more Capitol news.